Let’s say tight end Antonio Gates doesn’t play another down of football, and let’s say he announces his retirement. Then, what? Well, then that makes him eligible for the Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2023, which would put him in direct competition with another tight end — former Cowboys’ star Jason Witten.
So who goes in first: Gates or Witten?
Gates has an enormous edge in touchdown catches (114-68) and more TDs than any tight end, period — including 2019 candidate Tony Gonzalez. In fact, Gates has more touchdowns than all but five guys in NFL history — and all five are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Plus, he was an all-decade choice where Witten was not.
But Witten was more durable, missing only one game in 15 years; caught more passes for more yards; caught more passes (1,152) than all but Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez and Larry Fitzgerald and was named to more Pro Bowls (11-8) than Gates.
So whom do you have?
It’s a good question because, after Gonzalez goes in, Gates and Witten are the next most likely Hall-of-Fame tight ends. Both will make it, but neither may make it his first year of eligibility — especially if Gates doesn’t play again.
Reason: Look at the Class of 2023.
Already, we have tackle Joe Thomas and pass rushers Dwight Freeney and James Harrison as candidates, with Thomas an almost certain first-ballot choice. That leaves Gates, Witten and Freeney as the next-most-likely Hall-of-Famers, but keep this in mind: While voters love left tackles like Thomas — choosing four in the past seven years — they covet pass rushers more. They’ve selected nine in the past 11 years, with Jason Taylor a first-ballot selection in 2017.
That means Freeney could be next in line, but Gates would be my choice.
Now, let’s say he’s included in the same class as Witten, or let’s say they’re separated by only a year. There’s always the danger the two cancel each other out — much as wide receivers Andre Reed, Tim Brown and Cris Carter did for years and as happened to the offensive linemen among this year’s finalists.
Plus, there’s this: Hall-of-Fame voters have blind spots when it comes to tight ends, with only eight enshrined — including seven as modern-era candidates. Worse, it took John Mackey 15 years of eligibility to reach Canton and Mike Ditka 12.
But that was decades ago, and it changes when Gonzalez comes up for election in 2019. Tight ends are viewed differently in today’s game than they were when Mackey and Ditka played, which means fewer speed bumps and shorter waits for Gates and Witten.
So whom do you have? Gates was the more dangerous receiver and Red Zone threat, while Witten was more of a complete tight end, a sound blocker as well as a sure pass catcher.
For me, the difference was in the quality of the catch, and that’s where there’s separation for Gates. He scored, and he scored a lot. Four times he had seasons with double-digit touchdowns, including a career-high 13 in 2014, and twice he had years with nine scores. Plus, in his first eight seasons, he averaged 13.2 yards a catch — including 16.2 his rookie season, 15.6 in 2010 and 14.6 in 2009.
By contrast, Witten never had a season where he scored 10 times and had just one with nine TDs. Moreover, he never had a season where he averaged more than 11.9 yards per reception and finished with a per-catch average of 10.8 yards for his career.
“For the longest time,” said San Diego Union Tribune columnist Nick Canepa, a former Hall-of-Fame voter who saw nearly all of Gates’ games, “Antonio Gates was considered the best tight end in football. During his prime, I thought he was basically uncoverable. I have never seen a guy get open like Antonio Gates. It was unrealistic what he did. It made no sense. He was a special player.”
Of course, so was Witten. But Canepa thinks Gates had more of an impact because A) he scored nearly 50 more touchdowns and B) he changed the position he played — much like another Chargers’ tight end, Hall-of-Famer Kellen Winslow.
“Different eras, different players, totally different offenses,” he said. “I would think Antonio Gates would’ve thrived in Don Coryell’s scheme. But, at the time, Kellen was THE guy. He revolutionized the game.
“There was a time when Kellen was thought to be the best player in the league, and not many tight ends get that distinction. I remember the “Superman” headlines with Kellen. There never had been anyone like him because he was the first tight end to split out.
“But there wasn’t a tight end like Antonio Gates, either, because of his basketball background. He made the most of his basketball skills, using his body like he was rolling off picks. Just watch his film, and you can see he played basketball. I think lot of GMs since tried to find another one, but it hasn’t happened.
“To me, the difference between Gates and Witten were the touchdowns. Guys that score are special to me, and this guy got open in end zones. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jason Witten. He’s a great gamer, and he’s a helluva player. But he was not Antonio Gates.”
No, but he was damned good. And damned productive, durable and reliable.
So who goes into Canton first: Jason Witten or Antonio Gates? If I had to vote today, I make it Gates, not only because of the quality of his catches but because he was an all-decade choice where Witten was not. “Yeah, well,” you say, “so what?” Well, so the Hall’s voters are the people who choose those teams, and they thought Antonio Gates was better in his prime than Jason Witten was in his.
But the vote will be close. Of that I’m certain. I’m also certain that, until it happens, the Witten-Gates debate we’re having now will never end.